Mediocrity In Music Rejected: December 2000
Christmas is coming. Above all, apart from the goose getting fat, me spending all my money and everywhere becoming crowded with annoying shoppers, what that means is the return of a past era of music. My dissatisfaction with the majority of acts on the current rock and pop scene (and the majority of artists featured on DiS) does not need to be examined here, but the resurgence of bands such as Wizzard, Slade and even the legendary Wombles, in the form of Christmas 'Greatest Hits' albums, makes the current state of the music scene appear even more mediocre.
This mediocrity was exactly what inspired me, in March 1999, to launch my 'Mediocrity in Music Rejected' website, devoted to all music, past and present, which transcends the boring conventions which seem to plague the business these days. Unfortunately, the site failed in its objective by ironically becoming conventional itself: the same old reviews, interviews and 'features' that commercial magazines such as Kerrang! and the NME mechanically produce. It seems to me that by taking on the role of a music journalist, I was automatically stepping into a world which does not allow for any originality. Just a brief flick through the pages of Kerrang! magazine will demonstrate exactly what I mean - every single bit of writing is based on a formula, where words which superficially appear colourful and descriptive actually lead to very vague and unhelpful accounts of what is going on in the music world. This is precisely why I have been unimpressed with many of the reviews that I have read on DiS - the site's aspiration to be 'better' than the NME is certainly admirable, but it can never succeed if it goes about the affair in exactly the same way. In my last piece for DiS, 'Make Me A Tape', I talked about music as a purely personal medium, and this arose largely from my increasing sense that nobody should have the right to tell other people what music to listen to, or even what qualities they should notice in a particular song or album. There are too many prescriptions around, and it is these which lead to mediocrity in music.
I was pleased to read on these pages a column entitled 'nopassingphase #1', devoted to "little known bands/artists that produce magnificent music." It was in direct contrast to all those other pieces I see in the music press informing me of who will be big next year. The fact is that the current breed of music journalists is forgetting two things. The first is that who will be big next year is not relevant - it's what sounds good to you that counts. The second is that what one reviewer thinks of one record is irrelevant too - again, it's what the record does for you that's important. Therefore, I am presented with a huge problem - I am a writer, and my instinct is to write about everything that affects me emotionally (and, as a musician, I find that music affects me more profoundly than almost anything else), yet whenever I write I know that what I am saying can only act as an account of how I am feeling at the time. I can never tell anybody else whether it's worth getting the new Rancid album, or if My Vitriol are their type of thing - part of the fun of music is discovering it for yourself, so I think that the essential problem with music writing is its dictatorial nature. What you will read here and, when it is finally relaunched, on the Mediocrity in Music Rejected site, is what I am discovering about music at the moment. You might find it useful - I followed up some of the bands mentioned in the 'nopassingphase' article and found a few that I really liked. Alternatively, this whole thing might come across as a rambling mess of useless nonsense. In any case, it's helping me to sort _my_ head out, so if it doesn't interest you, just ignore it.
Going back to the aforementioned Christmas hits, apart from the fact that the festive nature of these songs is enough to put a smile on anyone's face, I can't help but feel that the Wombles, Roy Wood, Slade and all the other classics do something else: they bring back a type of musical performance that has just about disappeared from the mainstream pop market. How often do you turn on TOTP these days to see wacky outfits, big hair and outrageous guitars? More to the point, when was the last time that you looked at a pop star and felt inspired, not just in terms of music, but in terms of your entire life-style? These bands did something that just doesn't happen anymore - they created things, made things happen. Most importantly, they made people excited. Not just excited enough to rush out and buy the latest CD, but excited enough to go crazy, and all in the name of rock'n'roll.
There are a few acts around who still manage to deliver the goods in all aspects of performance. The most amazing performance that I have seen for a long time was November's spectacular at the London Scala, featuring Silver Ginger 5 and AntiProduct. I have often wondered what it would be like to live in the world depicted in the Beatles' 'Yellow Submarine' video: a world of psychedelic landscapes, where the most absurd physical laws apply; a world whose driving force is music - where pianos can independently jump into life and play rock'n'roll; where a rousing performance of a musical number is enough to bring life to a barren plain. Most importantly, of course, in such a world there is no stage: the performance is ongoing, not confined to a few hours, and the performers are not detached from the audience, but a part of a universal audience which constantly worships a force which, rather than making it feel its limitations, makes it feel wonderful.
Rock stars, generally, do not make me feel wonderful. The recent performance at the Scala was a rare exception. AntiProduct and Silver Ginger 5 have in common two very important facts: first, they both have amazing stage shows; second, they both adore their fans. These two elements combined in November to bring about something which nearly matched my 'Yellow Submarine' dream. Madman A. Product spent half of the time writhing in the midst of the audience, and the other half hurling his luminous orange body from place to place, pausing now and then to smash his head into the microphone before leaping away again, now mixing orange with red. The rest of the band, too, would be far better placed alongside the Wombles and Wizzards of this world than the Coldplays and... oh, you know. In short, it was captivating, hilarious and, above all, entertaining. And if that set the scene, then Silver Ginger 5 pretty much destroyed it with their all-out rock masterpiece of a show. There are things that I could say about that show that might not be appreciated by those who do not already hold an obsessive fascination with everything Ginger's ever done - things like the fact that the performance had had no advertising or promotion, yet still sold out; the fact that the entire crowd danced and sang along to the gorgeous pop melodies, even though the album has not yet been released outside Japan - but that is not what interests me right now. What does interest me is the nature of the whole show - the nature of the whole band, in fact. The album itself is HUGE, with everything from choirs and organs to the sort of rock guitar solos that are very rare these days. Live, the thing just explodes - stupendous drum beats coincide with booming fireworks, guitars are flung into the crowd, and everybody is happy. I love it, because this is the sort of thing that makes _me_ forget the boring bits of life and want to go crazy too.
So, you might say that I am becoming increasingly interested in the whole package of music - not just the sounds themselves, but the way they are presented. I am beginning to see music as a largely personal medium, and in my quest for Mediocrity in Music Rejected, I cannot help but feel that music alone cannot give me that total personal high. What I love about Silver Ginger 5 is that I feel wrapped up in something special, something where fans not only come to London from all corners of the country (and beyond), but also club together and raise the money to ship people over from abroad; something which has its own momentum and is totally, completely and undeniably independent of any record label or other representative of the commercial bullshit that is the British music business. In fact, it's not a business: it's a life-style, and with all this going on around me I feel that it is only when something changes not just my perception of music, but my perception of life, that it can properly satisfy my needs.
I also suspect that, until recently, I have been focussing on too small a range of influences. My roots, I suppose, are in melodic rock (notice how inadequate almost all genre labels are), but recently my tastes have broadened to include jazz, folk, a far wider array of classical offerings than I have previously tolerated, and even the dreaded synthetic sounds of dance. I am attracted to anything which is able to instil in me a sense of intimacy - the idea of minds and souls coming together under the influence of a common sound. In November, I was involved in a performance of the ridiculously large-scale 'War Requiem' by Benjamin Britten. With two choirs, a symphony orchestra, a chamber orchestra and three soloists, it is certainly an ambitious work. It is the unique nature of the orchestration, I feel, that adds to its emotional power, not least because people are only likely to bother putting on a production of such proportions if it is really worth it, and this inevitably means that everybody involved is, to some extent, spiritually tuned in to what is going on. Performing such an unusual piece made me more aware of music's potentially life-changing power - written in the context of a world torn apart by conflict, somehow the music is able to take all the ideas behind its notes and slot them into a new context - on the brink of a new millennium, human beings should be thinking about what they are, and how they treat each other. It fascinates me that music, above words, images, and even the shocking reality of it all, has the power to change our minds and make us consider these things. The fact is that a single note can clutch your insides and turn everything around where all other methods failed. This sort of process defies analysis, and that is the truly remarkable thing about music - it does things that simply cannot be accounted for.
I wonder if it is possible to achieve this sort of effect in rock. I was most intrigued by Chris Nettleton's review of Faust at the Royal Festival Hall, and, although I have never heard the band, can empathise with his admiration for such a large and carefully-crafted performance. Although I will never (I hope) abandon the sort of thing that made me love music in the first place - simple punk melodies, traditional 1920s jazz and even the uplifting sounds of sixties rock'n'roll that I remember dancing to when I heard it on the radio as an innocent six-year-old - I am becoming increasingly attracted to the kind of performance that is based on a good deal of pre-meditation. It is only by trying new and exciting orchestrations, in whatever genre (and why does there need to be a genre at all?) that people will break through the current limitations in music.
So that's the sort of nonsense that is eating my brain at the moment. My quest for music that is not mediocre is ongoing, so if anybody finds anything that they think I'll appreciate, do let me know. It's always fun to hear new things, even if you end up hating them.
My current project on the internet is entitled All-Purpose Mushrooms, and is always open to criticism.
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